Everyone has experienced it, and no one enjoys it: the airport delay. Missed connections, weather cancellations, and equipment problems make travel a less-than-glamorous experience. But there are some airports where you might decide that a longer-than-expected layover is not such a bad thing. Take, for instance, the Marrakech Menara Airport, where mosaic-tiled ceilings and gleaming glass ornaments evoke Moroccan royalty. In recent years, some of the biggest names in architecture have proven that airport design can be both practical and innovative — and improving passengers' travel experience.
Regine Weston, an expert in airport planning and systems, says a city’s airport is important on multiple levels. "The most obvious is that they are a gateway to your community, the first impression a visitor arriving by air has,” she says.
That's why a growing number of cities are spending heavily on revamping their terminals and tower structures to demonstrate their affluence and technological mastery beyond transportation.
"[People] fall in love with a city through an airport....It's the front row to a city and region, the first and last impression," says John D. Kasarda, a professor of management and director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.
While it can be difficult to quantify what makes an aesthetically pleasing airport, our group of experts chose 10 airports they deemed outstanding in terms of design and functionality.
Click ahead to see the world's most beautiful airports.
By Jessica Naziri
Posted 11 November 2011
Just in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic games, Beijing International added Terminal 3, the largest above-ground airport terminal in the world. The Feng Shui is the creation of British architect Norman Foster, who designed and completed Terminal 3 in four years.
Its soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form celebrate the thrill of flight and evoke Chinese traditional red and gold color scheme and symbols.
"If you are lucky, [you] see the sun glinting off the dragon scales on the spine of the building," says Weston.
The terminal is open to views to the outside and planned under a single unifying roof canopy. Linear skylights are both an aid to orientation and sources of daylight — the color scheme changing from red to yellow as passengers progress through the building.
Carrasco International Airport, or Aeropuerto Internacional de Carrasco General Cesareo L. Berisso, as it is known in Uruguay, is a private airport owned and operated by Puerta del Sur, and serves the capital city of Montevideo. The airport is one of just two airports in the country; it was created to expand capacity and spur commercial growth and tourism in the surrounding region.
In 2007, Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly designed a new building that plays off the tradition of grand transportation halls and departure levels all in one large space. The arrivals area encompasses an airy mezzanine level to help orient passengers to the terminal space before they descend to the baggage claim and other services. The curved roof of the airport’s exterior evokes the natural landscape of Uruguay, becoming not just an architectural landmark but a sculptural one, as well.
Denver International Airport, or DIA, which opened in 1996, is routinely voted the best airport in North America by Business Traveler magazine, balancing passenger safety and providing an enjoyable experience. The terminal’s peaked roof resembles a village of giant white teepees, against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
Denver-based architect Curtis Fentress, a pioneer in sustainable design, made the airport as "green" as possible, with solar-power operations, and a roof made of materials which reflect 20 percent of solar radiation in the summer and retains heat in the winter.
In addition to construction, the airport made operational improvements in 2009 and now uses a recycling program.
"It is the only major new airport to be built in recent memory, and as such has advantages over other large airports such as JFK, LAX, and ORD, which have grown organically over many decades and generations of airlines and aircraft needs," says Weston.
Since its opening in 2001, Incheon International Airport has been regularly voted the world's best airport in terms of the passenger experience. Award-winning architect Curtis Fentress, who also designed Denver International Airport, intended to design Incheon as a showcase of Korean culture.
Fentress spent weeks traveling the country, visiting cultural landmarks, and studying the lines and forms found in traditional buildings before he started to design the airport. The bow of the roofline emulates a traditional Korean temple, and while the arrival hallways are lined with Korean artifacts, some 5,000 years old, the airport's train terminal looks futuristic. Pine trees and wildflowers are planted inside the building.
The airport's baggage-handling system is designed to process 31,000 pieces of luggage an hour, and uses a centralized computer-controlled, automated tilt-tray system, that sorts pieces of luggage with barcode readers.
Formerly known as Lyon Satolas Airport, the building's most striking profile is based on two converging steel arches that resemble a bird in flight. Architect Santiago Calatrava designed St. Exupéry’s main concourse with a wing-like structure spread out on the ceiling and natural light coming through the openings.
Although there is a high-speed train station connected to the airport, Calatrava's aspirations for the airport serving as an international hub for the region failed, as only a handful of people use the high speed daily.
Located in Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America, near the island of Tierra del Fuego, Malvinas Argentinas Airport's beauty is a function of its natural setting. Flights come in low over the Andes Mountains, crossing the northern plains, smooth hills, and mountain topography. The airport is a common gateway to Patagonia and the Antarctic. From the outside, the glass building reflects the sun; inside, timber frames the spacious main building.
Modernism and traditional Islamic architecture come together at the Marrakech Menara Airport. Designed by a team of architects, led by Casablanca-based E2A Architecture, the airport added a contemporary terminal in 2008. Inside, massive concrete, diamond-shaped structures cover the ceiling, and light and shadows shift throughout the day. The contemporary design blends smoothly with the original terminal, whose columns are the typical diamond-shaped tiles in shades of green and terracotta.
Balconies overlook the central lobby and the main rest areas are equipped with sofas and armchairs decorated with fabrics typical of the region. The building's glass skin, which looks like wired mesh, evokes Arab artistry and design.
Singapore Changi Airport embarked on an ambitious expansion program in 2000. Its Terminal 3 was designed by CPG Corp. and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Inside, a woven tapestry of living plants not only divides the huge building into landside/airside sections but also connects the vertical space of the check-in/arrival areas, which are separated by a glass security screen.
The airport’s “butterfly-winged” skylights allow natural light in, while keeping the tropical heat out through regulated sensors. At night, the skylights glow with artificial lighting that is delicately concealed below the reflector panels. A five-story-high vertical garden, dubbed The Green Wall, complements the showcasing of natural elements.
"There are so many serene amenities, it's like a tropical wonderland," says Kasarda. "The idea is to calm passengers.”
The Sondika Bilbao Airport is nestled in the hilly green landscape of the Txoriherri Valley, close to the city of Bilbao in northern Spain and the gateway to the Basque capital. Work on the airport started in the early 1990s, but was not complete until late in the decade; the airport was fully operational by 2000, with an investment of $39 million.
Santiago Calatrava designed the layout with considerable attention to the surrounding area and environment, limiting the impact of auxiliary buildings on the vista of the main building. The four-story parking structure has a sky lit walkway leading to the terminal building. It’s nicknamed La Paloma, or the Dove, for its birdlike silhouette.
Tempelhof Weltflughafen, often called the world or city airport, because of its commuter flights to other parts of Germany, was designed by Nazi-era architect Albert Speer. One of the airport's most distinctive features is its large, canopy-style roof, which was able to accommodate most contemporary airliners. Although this airport closed all operations in 2008, many experts in architecture say its design determined the shape of airports for generations to come.
"It was the first airport to make a statement. The terminals were architecturally important," says Kasarda. The airfield will be used as a city park, while the terminal will be preserved for cultural functions.